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Tela, Honduras - Deadly Beaches and Colonial Grace

Hits 1719 | Created 2000-01-02 | Modified 2007-05-29

The magnificent colonial buildings that line the main street through Tela used to belong to the banana giants of the past. Now they crumble quietly and you can stare into their hollow shells and perhaps still see a chandelier sparkling darkly in the gloom.

Alongside the ornate structures of a bygone age sprawls modern day Latin architecture - concrete and hastily slapped together bricks, barred windows and metal support rods sprouting from their unfinished roofs. A stroll off the main street will take you to the shady zocolo where, by day, locals sprawl on concrete benches and chat idly. A market has grown up along some streets nearby and you can walk under the cooling shelter of plastic tarpaulins, browsing, amongst other things, cheap shoes, baskets and fruit. There is no hassle here, no hard sell, each stall holder seems to steadfastly ignore any passing customer, busy as they are waving their little fans. As you pass the town bank the security guards with their shotguns and revolvers eye you warily and then go back to doing nothing.

Today we continue walking out of the centre of town and through the poor neighbourhoods where makeshift shacks support enormous families that seem to be bursting with children. The families fall silent as we approach, following us with their eyes until we pass out of sight. We are nearing the sea and the shacks slowly make way for the compounds with their ten-foot fences topped with barbed wire.

These compounds house the relatively rich, mostly American, folk who have decided to retire to Honduras, for reasons best known only to themselves. We are here today to take dinner with one - an ex-New York cop who never fully explains his reasons for living here. After we gain entry to the compound we soon find ourselves sitting on the cop's balcony, gazing at the sea. He points out each of the other stilted houses in the compound, giving us the facts as to each tenant. Both extremes seem to be found - in one house an old man has a '500 Limpera girl' who visits him daily, and in another a religious old woman collects any poor children that will come, and preaches to them on the compound lawn. The cop asks if we are likely to be staying for a long time in Tela (which could mean a decade in the compound), because if we are, we should maybe consider buying a gun. He points to the beach and tells us that the beach isn't safe after dark, or if you walk along it out of sight of the town.

The cop leaves, returning with his speciality - a pasta bake, and then tells us that he shot a man on the beach a few days ago, at which point I choke on my drink. When I recover he tells us the story: He was walking on the dangerous beach, at dusk, out of sight of the town, when he saw a local man waving at him from across a stream. As he waved back, another man, who had crept up close behind him, grabbed him around the body and put a machete to his throat. At this moment the cop said he grabbed his gun from his holster and kept on firing behind his back until the guy fell off him.

There was silence, and then we asked him: What happened to the robber, did he die?

"How would I know?" he snapped angrily.

We stayed to eat the bake and then were driven home by another retired American, but one that lived in the town rather than in the compound. He told us he didn't fear for his safety in Tela and that he always left his door open so that prospective robbers could wander in at any time and see what there was worth taking, 'I don't have anything worth taking,' he said. Well, except for his brand new 4x4 pickup truck that is.

Back in town we decided to have a nightcap in a small Italian restaurant on the main road. The foreign owner had huge black eyes and a nose bloodily spread across his face. We asked him what happened and told us that he had foolishly walked through the zocolo late at night. His wife shook her head, "He's lucky to be alive!" she wailed. He nodded his head.

A gang of young local boys had accosted him, taken his watch and wallet and then beaten him up anyway. When asked if he had gone to the police he simply said, "The police recommend that you buy a gun and shoot the robber - no more problem."

We left a few days later, the town's charm having faded, like its beautiful buildings.

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tela honduras travel journal blog 2000 january

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